Ice to Meet You, Batman!
Batman Returns (1993 NES)
There is no doubt that the Tim Burton's Batman was an absolute force at the Box Office. No one at the time could have expected that his moody and Gothic-ally weird superhero film would go on to become the blockbuster force of 1989, but it was, and in its wake of his film a bunch of games were produced and sent out into the world (by Ocean, Sunsoft, and Atari). For the sequel, Batman Returns, various game companies once again lined up for a slice of the pie. It was a different group -- Konami, Aspect, Malibu, and more -- but their goal was the same: to take the cultural force that everyone assumed the sequel would be and sell a whole ton of games.
Of course, with all these companies with their own competing visions of adapting the sequel, a lot of ideas were thrown out, not all of them all that great. We're going to go over all of these games, one by one, to see how they stack up, and we start with the NES title. I chose it at random to be the start simply because I thought the NES game based on the first film, Sunsoft's fantastic Batman, was probably the best of that lot. Could lightning strike twice on the NES, even with three years and a whole set of 16-bit systems having been released?
Yes, yes it could. I really shouldn't have had any doubts at all once I saw it was a beat-em-up designed by Konami. The company were among the masters of the beat-em-up form at the time, having put out the absolutely phenomenal TMNT II: The Arcade Game on the NES and it's sequel, TMNT III: The Manhattan Project. If anyone could make a solid superhero beat-em-up game, it was Konami. And they did, translating the shadowy figure of Batman onto their existing template for a solid, street-level adventure that befits the hero.
The story of the game follows the main beats of the movie fairly closely. Batman notices that darkness is rising across Gotham with rumors of a creature living in the sewers and the cats of Gotham getting "noisy". Sure enough, two new villains rise: Penguin and Cawoman. These two, working together, want to take Batman down and rule the city for themselves. It's up to Batman to fight his way across the streets of Gotham, taking out Penguin's circus goons, all until he's able to stop the villains and save Gotham once more.
If you've played the Konami NES Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. beat-em-ups (the second and third ones, not the inferior first NES game) then you know what to expect with this title. Batman (and just Batman as this isn't a two-player game) will make his way across the screen, battling duos and trios of enemies as they come out. These will range from basic clowns, big men on stilts, fat clowns, dagger throwing ladies, ninja-like contortionists, and more. There are palette swaps of these enemies as you get deeper, with more moves being add to give the enemies some variety. Each stage will then cap with a battle against a villain, like an evil organ grinder, or Catwoman, and finally the Penguin. Standard stuff, really.
What I like about this game is that it doesn't stray too far from what Konami had already perfected on the NES with the TMNT games. You can feel the same formula at work, letting Batman punch through bad guys, slide kicking and jump kicking and using a special power move as well. If you swapped in a Turtle and some Foot Soldiers for the characters on screen, this would have felt like another perfect TMNT game in the series. That's good because those games are good and this one feels just as good, tight and responsive, as those games.
It might be weird to say, "hey, you could swap in characters from this other series and the game would be good," and call that a good thing. I've bitched about how other games in the BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. franchise have slapped Bats onto a game that really didn't feel like something he should be in, and that's true. But that's what works here. The TMNT games are superhero beat-em-ups because the Turtles are superheroes. Putting a superhero into this kind of game, which chunky fighting and street-level action, is right and proper. This is the right use for the character, no doubt in my mind at all.
Frankly, Konami nailed all they needed to with this game. The controls are properly tight, giving Batman that heavy, brawler feel he needs. He comes equipped with a set of gadgets he can used, like his grappling gun (for aerial attacks and to latch himself up to higher areas) and batarangs (to throw at enemies). And when you aren't controlling Batman you get either his Batmobile or Batboat for two scrolling shooting stages. I don't even mind these because they go by quick and help to break up the action. And while, yes, Batman using guns on his vehicles still feels weird, this does come from the movie so I'm at least going to let the continuity of it slide in this instance.
And I love the fact that Konami brought their polish to this game as well. The company in this era was absolutely known for their well crafted NES graphics and musical tracks, and that's on full display in the NES Batman Returns. The graphics find that right Gothic tone, dark and gritty while still looking perfectly legible on the NES's color palette. The music compliments, not bothering to borrow from the movie but, instead, having Konami's usual rocking flair, a bunch of tracks that push your forward in the stages on high octane. It works so very well.
In fact, about the only thing I have to complain about is that this game had to be tied to Batman Returns. That's not Konami's fault, really, as they bought a license to make a game and that's fair. I just wish they could have made something based on the whole Batman franchise so we could have had more variety to the enemies, like various types of goons instead of all the clown gang members from the movie. Then we could have had more recognizable villains at the end of every stage, and more heroes to play with than just a single player Batman experience. How much fun would it have been to see Nightwing or Batgirl in the game as well, each fighting with their own weapon types, not unlike the Turtles in their NES adventures. That would have made an already solid base experience even more fun.
Still, for a single-player NES experience that had to be tied to Batman Returns this was absolutely as good as we could have hope for. I really don't have any major notes and I just enjoyed the hell out of the game as I played through it. This is something of a hidden gem for me considering the NES title was overshadowed by all the other releases that came out for the movie on 16-bit systems. I frankly would have loved to have this game at the time, to add it to my NES library and cherish it right alongside all the other great Konami games. More people needed to know this NES game was out there. It's a real treasure.
Man, the rest of the movie tie-in games for Batman Returns are going to have a hard time competing here. The bar has been set very high.